One of the consequences of the violent upheavals in Syria and Iraq has been the systematic and wanton pillaging of some of the region's most ancient sites. The Islamic State militant group has vandalized, bulldozed, exploded and plundered numerous shrines, temples and palaces that predate the advent of Islam in the Middle East. The extremists, along with other smugglers and opportunists, have also enabled an illicit trade of priceless, historic treasures from a part of the world long known as the cradle of civilizations.
But amid this looting of antiquity, there's at least one heart-warming story. A museum in northern Iraq not only rescued a trove of artifacts from smugglers, but in the process of preserving heritage, discovered something new.
According to Ancient History Et Cetera, a news site on matters of archaeology and history, the Sulaymaniyah Museum, in the predominantly Kurdish city of the same name, acquired a cache of ancient tablets from a smuggler in 2011. The museum offered a "no questions asked" policy to smugglers in the hopes of preventing Iraq's cultural patrimony from leaving its borders. Here's more from Ancient History:
All of the tablets were, to some degree, still covered with mud. Some were completely intact, while others were fragmented. The precise location of their excavation is unknown, but it is likely that they were illegally unearthed from, what is known today as, the southern part of the Babel (Babylon) or Governorate, Iraq (Mesopotamia).
But researchers examining the tablets soon realized there was one particularly exciting find: a tablet, in three fragments, etched in cuneiform script with what appeared to be previously unknown lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 4,000-year-old Sumerian legend that some consider humanity's oldest story. The legend tells of the travails of Gilgamesh, the great king of Uruk, who journeys with his friend Enkidu, a semi-divine wild man, into the Cedar Forest to defeat the ogre Humbaba.
The Epic of Gilgamesh contains within it many universal tropes -- the hubris of a hero, the fear of mortality and even a great flood, navigated by a voyager on an ark.
Translation work was done largely by Farouk Al-Rawi, a professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and Andrew George, an associate dean at SOAS and a translator of a recent English edition of the epic.
The 20 new lines offer some new insights into the epic. Ancient History outlines a few:
- Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw "monkeys" as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest; this was not mentioned in other versions of the Epic.
- Humbaba emerges, not as a barbarian ogre, and but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, Humbaba.
So the Cedar Forest is a cacophonous abode of the gods. And there's also a curiously modern wrinkle, as George explained to Live Science:
"Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the cedar to take home to Babylonia, and the new text carries a line that seems to express Enkidu's recognition that reducing the forest to a wasteland is a bad thing to have done, and will upset the gods," George said. Like the description of the forest, this kind of ecological awareness is very rare in ancient poetry, he added.
The Epic of Gilgamesh played a clearly prominent role in ancient Mesopotamia and was passed down over the centuries until it got buried and forgotten amid the ruins of the region's many lapsed kingdoms. The Babylonian tablets now under scrutiny are 2,600 years old. The story was only rediscovered by a British philologist in the 19th century, who encountered the epic while toiling away in a musty archive of the British Museum.
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This post has been updated.